Hard Time

The evidence points away from Roy Criner's guilt in a savage crime. But the state still has what counts most -- a conviction.

None of that matters to Montgomery County District Attorney Mike McDougal. "Mr. Criner's guilty, and Mr. Criner's in prison, and that's where he's gonna stay," McDougal says.

Ironically, a blood test provided the final nail in Criner's coffin. When he went to trial, sophisticated DNA-testing techniques were still in the developmental stage and not widely available. Prosecutor Walker seized on a possible match between the semen sample and Criner's blood type, which showed that Criner -- as well as more than half of the country's white male population -- could have raped Ogg. "Is there any scientific evidence that in any way supports [the state's contention]?" Walker asked the jury. "Yes, there is."

That evidence now having evaporated, the state has hastened to explain away the test results by concocting a new theory: Criner still committed the rape, but either failed to ejaculate or wore a condom. As for the semen, the victim slept around indiscriminately and probably had consensual sex with someone within hours of the crime. "Had she been pure and virginal, yes, [the DNA test] would have been more definitive," says Walker, who is now an assistant county attorney.

District Attorney McDougal presented this revisionist theory to the court in arguing to stymie Criner's bid for a new trial. But even McDougal is hedging his bets these days: Since Criner's DNA test came back negative, an investigator from his office has been collecting blood samples from other possible suspects and testing for a match with the semen. Why? Maybe Criner had somebody with him when the crime occurred, McDougal says, offering yet another new twist in the ever-evolving hypothesis. And while he won't flat-out say the case has been reopened, Peggy Frankhauser of the Montgomery County Sheriff's Department allows that the homicide investigation is ongoing. "For Mr. Criner it is a closed case," Frankhauser says. "For other suspects it is not."

None of this came up at trial, of course, because the prosecution's case was simple: Roy Criner raped and killed Deanna Ogg by himself, and even though the evidence is entirely circumstantial, there's enough of a thread to convict him.

That thread may be unraveling eight years later, but it won't help Criner, whose appeals are close to exhausted. The wheels of justice have turned, and even though some judges may have found in Criner's favor, McDougal says, "He hasn't been successful where it counts."

Where it counts, at least legally, is the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. In denying Criner a new trial, the majority held that the DNA evidence did not refute the testimony of the three witnesses, who recounted in court Criner's vague tale of a hitchhiker and a blowjob. "[Criner]'s admissions are simply too compelling," Judge Sharon Keller wrote in her opinion.

Perhaps Keller should have spoken with Jeff Pitts, Criner's former boss -- and one of the three witnesses -- before issuing her edict. Pitts, who was with Criner at a logging camp deep in the Montgomery County woods for all but a few hours the day of the murder, says that Criner was actually stacking logs during the time he was supposed to have driven into town and committed the crime. Though no one ever asked him during the trial, he's adamant that it would have been physically impossible for Criner to have done it. "There's no possible way," Pitts says. "I'd stake my life on it."

At about 7:15 p.m. on the evening of September 27, 1986, two teenagers were riding their four-wheelers down an old Montgomery County logging road. One of their headlight beams swept across an object in some nearby brush. Driving a little closer, the youths saw the legs, arms and back of a body, covered with blood; terrified, they raced away and flagged down a passing car.

Within an hour, investigators were swarming over the scene, about 500 yards down the logging trail off Old Houston Road, almost midway between Conroe and New Caney. Working carefully around the nude, battered corpse of a young woman lying face down in the dirt, officers collected and cataloged various bits of evidence scattered among the weeds: several articles of clothing, a cigarette butt, a blue wallet, a red makeup case, a pill bottle, a hair brush. From a school lunch card and other items, they identified the victim as Deanna Lynn Ogg.

Ogg had been living in the Holly Ridge subdivision, a rundown trailer park on the fringes of Porter. The family had moved there from Pasadena several months earlier, though Ogg, who had run away from home more than once and had a strong rebellious streak, had stayed behind for a few weeks until her relatives convinced her to join them. "She had a boyfriend, and she wanted to be with him," explains Cherylann Flutka, Ogg's best friend of seven years. "She didn't want to leave her friends, either."

Despite her reluctance to relocate, Ogg had adjusted well to her new surroundings, quickly establishing a social network at school and in the neighborhood. An outgoing person with a tendency to excess, she'd been as avid a partier as any of her peers, though she'd never run afoul of the law.

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